What Global Warming Means For Wisconsin

The problem: Carbon pollution is fueling global warming

The science of global warming starts with the burning of fossil fuels, specifically in vehicles fueled by oil and at power plants owned by utilities like WE Energies. When we burn fossil fuels like coal, oil or gas, carbon dioxide is emitted into the air. This carbon pollution collects in the atmosphere, where it traps heat from the sun that would otherwise escape into space. That causes the earth’s temperature to rise, which triggers a variety of mostly negative results for Wisconsin and the planet.

And temperatures are definitely rising. Already, 2012 was the hottest year on record for the continental U.S., 2010 tied for the second hottest year, and the decade of 2001-2010 was the hottest 10-year period on record. The evidence that humans are warming the globe is only strengthening; in the words of a recent report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences: “Some scientific conclusions or theories have been so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small… This is the case for the conclusion that the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.”

The results: Extreme weather, air pollution and more

As the planet warms, scientists at the University of Wisconsin’s Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) and other experts warn that Wisconsin will likely experience a variety of negative consequences:

  • Extreme storms & hurricanes: Higher temperatures lead to more major rainstorms and heavy snowstorms for two reasons. First, warmer temperatures lead to greater evaporation, so more water in our lakes and oceans becomes airborne. Second, warmer air can hold more water vapor. This means that when it rains, the atmosphere will have more moisture to work with and so heavy downpours and more intense hurricanes are more likely—as is more of the flooding that often results from these storms. Already, the number of extreme precipitation events increased 30 percent over the continental U.S. between 1948 and 2011, and at least 11 weather-related disasters causing at least $1 billion in damage hit the U.S. in 2012 alone, many of which involved devastating floods. Check out this interactive map to see which weather-related disasters have hit Wisconsin in recent years.
  • Smog pollution: Ozone “smog” pollution is the pollution that hangs over our cities on many of the hottest summer days. Since heat is a key ingredient in the formation of smog (pollution from cars, trucks and power plants is the other), which triggers asthma attacks and a variety of other respiratory problems, scientists predict that we’ll see even more smog in a warming world. In fact, a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that higher levels of ground-level ozone due to rising temperatures in 2020 could lead to 2.8 million more asthma attacks and other respiratory problems, leading to 900,000 additional missed days of school. That’s bad news for all of us, but especially the 274,100 adults and 92,200 kids in Wisconsin who suffer from asthma.
  • Heat waves:  Just as we can expect average temperatures to rise in a warming world, we can also expect to see more intense and longer-lasting heat waves in Wisconsin and across the country. These heat waves can threaten the health of even healthy individuals and cause problems for our infrastructure, as happened in July, 2012 when a US Airways jet became stuck in softened asphalt on the airport runway in Washington, D.C.
  • Drought: Even though we’re likely to see more precipitation fall when it does rain or snow, it’s also the case that a warming world will likely result in longer dry spells in between rainfalls for some parts of the country. Combined with high temperatures, these dry spells can lead to drought. Beginning in 2012, a record drought has gripped much of the central region of the country in recent months. During the second half of the 20th century, drought became more common in parts of the northern Rockies, the Southwest and the Southeast, and less common in parts of the northern Plains and Northeast. Droughts can wreak havoc in many ways, from lower crop yields for farmers to the threat of dangerous wildfires.
  • Loss of plant & animal species: While you’ve probably heard about the very real threat that global warming poses to the survival of polar bears and other arctic species, other species closer to home could also be threatened in a warming world. For instance, the warming temperatures and changing habitat could cause the American marten or the spruce grouse to leave Wisconsin. And coldwater fish like trout are threatened by warming water temperatures.

The solution: Cut carbon pollution, promote clean energy

Thankfully, we know what we have to do to slow and stop global warming: cut emissions of the carbon pollution that is fueling the problem. Specifically, scientists have said that to give ourselves the best chance of protecting future generations from the worst consequences of global warming, the U.S. and other developed countries need to cut our carbon emissions so that by 2020 we’re emitting 25-40 percent less carbon into the air than we were in 1990.

That’s a steep goal, but in Wisconsin and across the country, we’re already starting to move in the right direction. We know we can reduce emissions of carbon pollution by cutting down on energy waste and developing cleaner, renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. We can make our buildings much more energy efficient so that they’re demanding less energy from coal-fired power plants.  We can make our cars go farther on a gallon of gas, and expand public transportation systems so that more people can get where they’re going without using their cars at all. And we must reject new dirty energy projects that will make the problem even worse. Here in Wisconsin, we can build upon strong state programs like the Renewable Energy Standard and Focus on Energy, which are helping to increase energy efficiency, and expand wind and solar development in the state.

Together, all of these things add up. A recent Wisconsin Environment Research & Policy Center report, The Way Forward on Global Warming, found that by adopting a suite of clean energy solutions at the local, state and federal levels, the U.S. could reduce carbon emissions by as much as 20 percent by 2020 and 34 percent by 2030 (compared to 2005 levels)—representing a significant down payment toward the pollution reductions called for by scientists.

Reducing carbon pollution to levels that ensure a safe and stable climate is an incredible challenge with far-reaching consequences for our planet and future generations. Yet in our communities, in Wisconsin and in Washington, we are making exciting progress in the race to solve global warming. Be part of the solution. Learn more. Share what you learn. And most importantly, take action to reduce carbon pollution in whatever ways you can.